Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 14

Expedition to Ruthyn — The Column — Slate Quarries — The Gwyddelod — Nocturnal Adventure.

NOTHING worthy of commemoration took place during the two following days, save that myself and family took an evening walk on the Wednesday up the side of the Berwyn, for the purpose of botanizing, in which we were attended by John Jones. There, amongst other plants, we found a curious moss which our good friend said was called in Welsh, Corn Carw, or deer’s horn, and which he said the deer were very fond of. On the Thursday he and I started on an expedition on foot to Ruthyn, distant about fourteen miles, proposing to return in the evening.

The town and castle of Ruthyn possessed great interest for me from being connected with the affairs of Owen Glendower. It was at Ruthyn that the first and not the least remarkable scene of the Welsh insurrection took place by Owen making his appearance at the fair held there in fourteen hundred, plundering the English who had come with their goods, slaying many of them, sacking the town and concluding his day’s work by firing it; and it was at the castle of Ruthyn that Lord Grey dwelt, a minion of Henry the Fourth and Glendower’s deadliest enemy, and who was the principal cause of the chieftain’s entering into rebellion, having, in the hope of obtaining his estates in the vale of Clwyd, poisoned the mind of Harry against him, who proclaimed him a traitor, before he had committed any act of treason, and confiscated his estates, bestowing that part of them upon his favourite, which the latter was desirous of obtaining.

We started on our expedition at about seven o’clock of a brilliant morning. We passed by the abbey and presently came to a small fountain with a little stone edifice, with a sharp top above it. “That is the holy well,” said my guide: “Llawer iawn o barch yn yr amser yr Pabyddion yr oedd i’r fynnon hwn — much respect in the times of the Papists there was to this fountain.”

“I heard of it,” said I, “and tasted of its water the other evening at the abbey;” shortly after we saw a tall stone standing in a field on our right hand at about a hundred yards’ distance from the road. “That is the pillar of Eliseg, sir,” said my guide. “Let us go and see it,” said I. We soon reached the stone. It is a fine upright column about seven feet high, and stands on a quadrate base. “Sir,” said my guide, “a dead king lies buried beneath this stone. He was a mighty man of valour and founded the abbey. He was called Eliseg.” “Perhaps Ellis,” said I, “and if his name was Ellis the stone was very properly called Colofn Eliseg, in Saxon the Ellisian column.” The view from the column is very beautiful, below on the south-east is the venerable abbey, slumbering in its green meadow. Beyond it runs a stream, descending from the top of a glen, at the bottom of which the old pile is situated; beyond the stream is a lofty hill. The glen on the north is bounded by a noble mountain, covered with wood. Struck with its beauty I inquired its name. “Moel Eglwysig, sir,” said my guide. “The Moel of the Church,” said I. “That is hardly a good name for it, for the hill is not bald (moel).” “True, sir,” said John Jones. “At present its name is good for nothing, but estalom (of old) before the hill was planted with trees its name was good enough. Our fathers were not fools when they named their hills.” “I daresay not,” said I, “nor in many other things which they did, for which we laugh at them, because we do not know the reasons they had for doing them.” We regained the road; the road tended to the north up a steep ascent. I asked John Jones the name of a beautiful village, which lay far away on our right, over the glen, and near its top. “Pentref y dwr, sir” (the village of the water). It is called the village of the water, because the river below comes down through part of it. I next asked the name of the hill up which we were going, and he told me Allt Bwlch; that is, the high place of the hollow road.

This bwlch, or hollow way, was a regular pass, which put me wonderfully in mind of the passes of Spain. It took us a long time to get to the top. After resting a minute on the summit we began to descend. My guide pointed out to me some slate-works, at some distance on our left. “There is a great deal of work going on there, sir,” said he: “all the slates that you see descending the canal at Llangollen came from there.” The next moment we heard a blast, and then a thundering sound: “Llais craig yn syrthiaw; the voice of the rock in falling, sir,” said John Jones; “blasting is dangerous and awful work.” We reached the bottom of the descent, and proceeded for two or three miles up and down a rough and narrow road; I then turned round and looked at the hills which we had passed over. They looked bulky and huge.

We continued our way, and presently saw marks of a fire in some grass by the side of the road. “Have the Gipsiaid been there?” said I to my guide.

“Hardly, sir; I should rather think that the Gwyddelaid (Irish) have been camping there lately.”

“The Gwyddeliad?”

“Yes, sir, the vagabond Gwyddeliad, who at present infest these parts much, and do much more harm than the Gipsiaid ever did.”

“What do you mean by the Gipsiaid?”

“Dark, handsome people, sir, who occasionally used to come about in vans and carts, the men buying and selling horses, and sometimes tinkering, whilst the women told fortunes.”

“And they have ceased to come about?”

“Nearly so, sir; I believe they have been frightened away by the Gwyddelod.”

“What kind of people are these Gwyddelod?

“Savage, brutish people, sir; in general without shoes and stockings, with coarse features and heads of hair like mops.”

“How do they live?”

“The men tinker a little, sir, but more frequently plunder. The women tell fortunes, and steal whenever they can.”

“They live something like the Gipsiaid.”

“Something, sir; but the hen Gipsiaid were gentlefolks in comparison.”

“You think the Gipsiaid have been frightened away by the Gwyddelians?”

“I do, sir; the Gwyddelod made their appearance in these parts about twenty years ago, and since then the Gipsiaid have been rarely seen.”

“Are these Gwyddelod poor?”

“By no means, sir; they make large sums by plundering and other means, with which, ’tis said, they retire at last to their own country or America, where they buy land and settle down.”

“What language do they speak?”

“English, sir; they pride themselves on speaking good English, that is to the Welsh. Amongst themselves they discourse in their own Paddy Gwyddel.”

“Have they no Welsh?”

“Only a few words, sir; I never heard one of them speaking Welsh, save a young girl — she fell sick by the roadside as she was wandering by herself — some people at a farmhouse took her in, and tended her till she was well. During her sickness she took a fancy to their quiet way of life, and when she was recovered she begged to stay with them and serve them. They consented; she became a very good servant, and hearing nothing but Welsh spoken, soon picked up the tongue.”

“Do you know what became of her?”

“I do, sir; her own people found her out, and wished to take her away with them, but she refused to let them, for by that time she was perfectly reclaimed, had been to chapel, renounced her heathen crefydd, and formed an acquaintance with a young Methodist who had a great gift of prayer, whom she afterwards married — she and her husband live at present not far from Mineira.”

“I almost wonder that her own people did not kill her.”

“They threatened to do so, sir, and would doubtless have put their threat into execution, had they not been prevented by the Man on High.”

And here my guide pointed with his finger reverently upward.

“Is it a long time since you have seen any of these Gwyddeliaid?”

“About two months, sir, and then a terrible fright they caused me.”

“How was that?”

“I will tell you, sir; I had been across the Berwyn to carry home a piece of weaving work to a person who employs me. It was night as I returned, and when I was about halfway down the hill, at a place which is called Allt Paddy, because the Gwyddelod are in the habit of taking up their quarters there, I came upon a gang of them, who had come there and camped and lighted their fire, whilst I was on the other side of the hill. There were nearly twenty of them, men and women, and amongst the rest was a man standing naked in a tub of water with two women stroking him down with clouts. He was a large fierce-looking fellow and his body, on which the flame of the fire glittered, was nearly covered with red hair. I never saw such a sight. As I passed they glared at me and talked violently in their Paddy Gwyddel, but did not offer to molest me. I hastened down the hill, and right glad I was when I found myself safe and sound at my house in Llangollen, with my money in my pocket, for I had several shillings there, which the man across the hill had paid me for the work which I had done.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50